Israel: the plight of African migrants

Submitted by AWL on 17 August, 2012 - 2:21

The first Africans to try to get Israel by foot were Jewish Ethiopians in the 1980s. At the time, Israeli decision makers were not yet sure if they were really Jews (some rabbis said they were not) and if they were really wanted.

They started on their own, (which was part of revolutionary upheavals in Ethiopia at the time) marched thousands of kilometers under horrible conditions, thousands died of starvation, disease, bandit attacks, women were raped. Finally the government of Israel decided to pick them up clandestinely from Sudanese shore and take them to Israel. They now have an annual memorial for their trek through the desert which has an official status and is hailed as a heroic Zionist saga at the same time that the present-day trek of (non-Jewish) Sudanese and Eritreans through the same desert and facing the same dangers is denounced as a mortal threat to Israel which must be stopped at all costs.

Black skinned Ethiopians still suffer all kinds of racist discrimination in the Israeli society, though it is less blatant and has less official backing than towards the "illegal" African refugees and migrant workers. Ethiopians were on some cases attacked when racists attacked anyone with a black skin.

Ethiopians — especially second-generation, who were born in Israsel and served in the IDF — started a few months ago to organise, after there were house owners in the town of Kiryat Malachi who refused to rent them homes.

The people in Kiryat Malachi at the time actually said that where Ethiopians come the Sudanese and Erithreans follow because the police does not distinguish between all the blacks and does not know who is legal and who is not.

After 1967 low-paid jobs in Israel were mainly done by Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. Due to Palestinian attacks in the 1990s, the government moved to exclude the Palestinians and replace them with migrant workers. These were mainly from Asia (China, Thailand, Philippines, Nepal, Sri-Lanka) and from Eastern Europe (mainly Romania and Bulgaria) but it became known in Africa that there is work in Israel.

The first Africans to arrive were mainly from Western Africa (especially Nigeria). Later there started a stream of asylum seekers from Sudan due to the long civil war there and from Eritrea due to the oppressive regime.

Contributing factors were more strict measures by European countries to block migrants and asylum seekers, for example Spain erecting walls on the border the Ceuta and Mellilla enclaves (now used as example and precedent by Netanyhau) and Italy making more effort to stop immigrant ships in the Mediterranean.

Another contributing factor is the situation in Egypt where the central government lost effective control of Sinai giving a free hand to smugglers, who sometimes hold African refugees who try to get to Israel to ransom under terrible conditions and rape women refugees.

Some of the African who get to Israel have really been through hell before they arrived. (Some of these Sinai smugglers have earlier been involved in human trafficking and smuggling women — mainly East European — for prostitution in Israel; the Israeli police had taken active step against that after some years, because of international criticism and Israeli human rights and feminist organisations, so the Sinai smugglers shifted to African refugees instead).

There was a time when the Israeli army patrols were sending Africans caught at the border directly back to Egypt, where often they were badly mistreated and sometimes killed out of hand by Egyptian border guards.

Conscientious Israeli soldiers refused to take part in this practice and let refugees stay in Israel also against orders, and they gave testimonies.

After Human Rights organisations appealed to the Supreme Court this practice was forbidden and the state was ordered to examine cases individually before expelling refugees.

What the state should have done was to interview each person individually and determine if they deserve or don't deserve refugee status.

This the government has not done. Instead, they keep the people who arrive across the border imprisoned for some time and then set them loose but without permission to work in Israel and with a very murky legal situation.

It seems the reason for this is the fear that if there is an examination on an individual basis, under the commonly accepted UN criteria, many of these people would be found to have a genuine case to be recognised as refugees who would face life danger if returned to their countries. Then Israel would be "struck" with them more or less permanently. So the government prefers to keep them in limbo. It should be noted that Labor Party Chair Shelly Yehimovitzch did this year table a bill to create a regular procedure to interview asylum seekers and determine who deserves a refugee status. So far it had not been voted on.

For some time African refugees/migrant workers (or however you define them) were restricted to staying no less than thirty kilometers south or north of Tel Aviv and excluded from the center of the country. This rule was abolished due to the protest of Human Rights organisations on the one hand and or openly-racist mayors from the towns of the periphery on the other hand. Since then, Africans found on the border had been sent on to the slums of South Tel Aviv and there dumped on the street.

The agitation against Africans had been simmering for years, and there was a nearly 100% correspondence between attitudes towards Palestinians and towards Africans — those who are either racist or anti-racist in the one case tend to take the same position in the other case.

The Social Protest Movement of last summer made an effort to include both the Africans and the slum dwellers in its demand for Social Justice. There was a tent encampment in the Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv, where the dwellers included both Africans and poor Israelis, who lived together for several months and shared in the protest on rather amicable terms.

However, the tents were eventually pulled down by the Tel Aviv Municipality and then the Israelis went elsewhere while the Africans remained living there under the open sky because many of them had nowhere else to go. There was started an organisation called "Levinsky Soup" in which Israelis cook food in their homes and bring it to the park and distribute it to the Africans who gather there. I would define this as a mixture between charity and solidarity — and in the past month, I think that Israelis who persist in it under the present circumstances (I know some of them) could be considered as doing a quite brave of defiant solidarity.

What precipitated the present outbreak of anti-African racism was the case of three Sudanese who raped an Israeli girl. A very horrible and brutal act by all accounts, and they certainly deserve a heavy punishment.

The racist element is of course with the extensive media report emphasising their ethnic origin and the attempt to generalize all Sudanese and all Africans as rapists, thieves etc. Dorit Avramovitz, who is a very militant Israeli feminist, said that in all her long career of working with rape victims she never encountered a rape which got that much publicity, and that certainly in the many cases where rapists had a white skin this fact had not been commented on in the media. It was this rape and what followed which gave enormous impetus to the anti-African racism and propelled the issue to the headlines. There had been very much debate about how much of the crime in the Tel Aviv area is due to the Africans. There was a figure of 40% of all crimes in Tel Aviv supposedly committed by them, which was attributed to the police and of course extensively used by the racist demagogues, but the police denied having ever published such a figure.

Actually Yohanan Danino, head of the Israeli National Police, stated quite sensibly that if they are allowed to live in Tel Aviv they should also be allowed to work, and that letting people stay here with no means of sustenance leads them to crime. This was however rejected firmly by the political echelon, who said that letting Africans work legally in Israel would be an inducement to more Africans to come.

There is a class issue involved which also has ethnic undertones — namely that the Africans are living in the slum neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv where the inhabitants are predominantly Mizrahi (i.e. Jews from Arab and Islamic countries) while most of the Left-Wing and Human Rights activists are Askenazi (European Jews) who live in the more affluent neighborhoods of North Tel Aviv. This led to a very frequent accusation which you all the time hear quoted in the media "It is easy for you to support these Africans, they don't live where you live. You don't have to be endure them, to be afraid of robbery at night, of your daughters and wives being raped, they don't come to defecate in your back yard. You would have spoken differently if there were Africans in North Tel Aviv etc. etc.etc."

The City for All faction in the Tel Aviv City Council, which is a wide coalition dominated by the Communist Party, actually proposed that the city take active measures to distribute the Africans in all parts of the city and hire for them housing in areas where they can't afford it with their meager funds. This proposal was, however, rejected out of hand by the Mayor and the other municipal factions.

Some months ago there was a racist demonstration in the Hatikva slum neighborhood and activists came to confront it. Unfortunately, the confrontation was reported in the media as "Hatikva inhabitants sick and tired of the suffering caused by the Africans in their neighborhood" vs. "Leftist agitators who came from the affluent areas of the North". This was still before the bog outbreak of racist violence got the whole thing into the headlines. Then, on the day after the racist riots in Hatikva there was a very big debate on the route of the counter-protest. Some people wanted to start it on the spot where the racist violence happened and march from there to Central Tel Aviv, while others strongly opposed and said this would again create the image of "local poor inhabitants against rich outsiders". In the end the latter faction won (they threatened to boycott the demo otherwise) and the march started at the Levinsky Park until the Likud Party Headquarters in central Tel Aviv, and avoided the area where the racist violence took place.

Afterwards there was for more than a week a very bitter debate on various left-wing websites and discussion forums. Especially very bitter exactly because both sides to the debate were left-wingers who used left-wing arguments and who usually work together with each other.

Essentially the one side to the debate said that racism is racism is racism and that when you witness racism you have to go there and confront it, whoever the perpetrators, that in all countries participants in racist violence are very often themselves from poor and disadvantaged parts of the society concerned, that you have to acknowalage this but it is no excuse for racism — and they accused the other faction of being apologists from racism. The other faction for its part held that the responsibility for the racism should be placed only and solely on the government and not on inhabitants of Hatikva, and that anyone accusing the Hatikva inhabitants of racism were themselves Ashkenazi racists and elitists, who are open to the suffering of Palestinians and Africans but blind to the suffering and discrimination of Mizrahis. Of course, one thing which was behind it was that these people felt that the Social Protest of last year had given the Left a tenous foothold in the slums, and that too strong championing of Africans would lose this. With which I sympathize but disagree.

Now the focus has moved from opposing racist mob violence on the street to opposing government-sponsored hunt and deportation of Africans — on which the above two factions have no problem to unite.

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